Win for disability rights: BGL helps blind man take on Domino’s for ADA violation

Guillermo Robles v. Domino’s Pizza

Although using the internet to order food, shop for clothes, and engage in other retail activities was an increasingly popular option before the COVID-19 pandemic, it has now transformed from a convenient and efficient offering to a health necessity for many.  Individuals with print disabilities, however, often find themselves shut out of this rapidly digitized world when they encounter websites, apps, and other online offerings that were not designed with accessibility in mind.

Guillermo Robles, a blind man from Los Angeles, experienced this first-hand when he could not order pizza from Domino’s online. Mr. Robles, like many individuals with print disabilities, relies on screen-reading software to access the information that appears visually on screens, either through audio output or a refreshable Braille display (which has pins that rise and fall to create Braille). Mr. Robles regularly uses his screen reader to access the internet, but because Domino’s did not design or maintain its website or mobile app to be accessible, he was unable to use Domino’s website or mobile app to review the menu, access coupons, and place an order.

Mr. Robles did not just give up when he couldn’t access Domino’s website and mobile app; he exercised his rights and filed a lawsuit in 2016 to get Domino’s to fix its website and mobile app, and adopt policies that would ensure their continued accessibility. Brown Goldstein & Levy later joined as co-counsel to help advocate for web accessibility.

We argued that Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”), signed into law in 1990, requires that businesses serving as “public accommodations” remove barriers to access for people with disabilities on their websites and mobile apps. Under the ADA, public accommodations include restaurants, theaters, and retail stores, among other types of commercial establishments.

Because the ADA does not explicitly address the internet or mobile apps, courts around the country have had to decide how the law applies to commercial websites. Domino’s argued that because the federal government has not yet set rules governing how to make web platforms ADA compliant, it need not ensure that its website or app complies with the ADA at all. The district court initially adopted Domino’s argument, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed on appeal. The Ninth Circuit agreed with Mr. Robles and amici disability rights groups that the ADA’s requirements of providing “full and equal enjoyment” and “effective communication” set a standard that Domino’s must meet. The court further confirmed that Domino’s website and app were covered under the ADA because the law “applies to the services of a place of public accommodation, not services in a place of public accommodation.”

With the case returned to the district court, the parties moved ahead with discovery and summary judgment briefing. On June 23, 2021, the district court delivered a victory to Mr. Robles, granting summary judgment on his website claims and ordering Domino’s to make its website fully compliant with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 and pay Mr. Robles $4,000 in damages. Furthermore, the court rejected Domino’s summary judgment motion in its entirety. In doing so, the court stated that Domino’s phone line was not an adequate substitute for an accessible website, noting that “[n]o person who has ever waited on hold with customer service – or ever been hungry for a pizza – would find this to be an acceptable substitute for ordering from a website.” In response to Domino’s argument that Mr. Robles was obligated to amend his complaint to add new barriers as they appeared on Domino’s quickly-changing website, the court recognized that such a requirement is both unnecessary and would lead to absurd results. The court further rejected Domino’s claim that it could not be held liable for the website and mobile app it exclusively controls because its physical stores are all owned and operated by franchisees. Finally, the court made clear that websites must provide blind customers all of the same convenient features offered to sighted customers. Simply being able to place an order, regardless of how time-consuming or confusing the process, is not “full and equal enjoyment” as required under the ADA. The case is now set for trial on Mr. Robles’ claim that Domino’s mobile app is also inaccessible in violation of the ADA.

This is a huge win for Mr. Robles and other individuals with print disabilities who rely on screen access software to access the internet. Yet the fight for web accessibility is far from over. Among the top million websites’ homepages, 97% have accessibility barriers, according to WebAIM, with an average of 51 accessibility barriers per homepage. As a result, there are about 2,500 federal lawsuits filed in the U.S. challenging inaccessible websites and technologies every year.

If you have a disability case that needs a civil rights attorney experienced in difficult and complex cases, call Jessie Weber at (410) 962-1030 for a consultation today.